A new study shows that obese girls are highly stigmatized—and losing weight won't improve their body image.
Seventeen percent of American children are obese. Many public health advocates insist that losing weight is key to improving these kids' physical health—but a new study finds it may not make them feel better about themselves.
Purdue University sociology professor Sarah Mustillo studied the health of 2,000 black and white girls over the course of a decade, charting the girls' weight and self-esteem levels in the formative years between 10 and 20. The harmful stigmatization of obese children is well-documented, and weight loss is not a cure. Mustillo found that among girls who were once considered obese but later lost weight, "the negative [psychological] effects of larger body size can outlive the obesity itself."
That trend is particularly true among white girls: The study found that "obese white girls had lower self-esteem than their normal-weight peers and their self-esteem remained flat even as they transitioned out of obesity." Black girls who lost weight did see an increase in self-esteem, but that doesn't mean they ended up happy with their bodies—they started out with a body image so negative that even when it improved, "both races continued to have negative body perceptions" post-weight loss.
"Studies show that children internalize stereotypes and negative perceptions of obese people before they ever become obese themselves, so when they do enter that stigmatized state, it affects their sense of self-worth," Mustillo writes. Even when obese children lose weight, these internalized "feelings of worthlessness" may be so strong that they "stick with them." It's also possible that the increased social scrutiny that accompanies weight changes may fan the flames. Another recent study from the University of Arizona found that when young people engage in "fat talk"—defined as "the ritualistic conversations about one's own or others' bodies"—they demonstrate lower levels of body satisfaction and higher levels of depression, regardless of their weight.
The results are bad news for public health goals, both psychological and physical. Mustillo puts it this way: "Why keep dieting and exercising if you are still going to see yourself as fat?"